Ode to Broken Things

Written by Tyler Bruett

The way great art has come into my life has often been serendipitous. Coming out of the 2020 quarantine, I found myself returning to New York City in the summer of 2021 with a cynical determination. I had resolved that I would carry on with life, regardless of whether aspects of life, and aspects of the world, were damaged, broken, or doomed to become so. This quandary may not have been exclusive to me, but it felt personal, and like a child kicking and screaming, no rationale could talk me out of it. The only respite to my ailment came in the form of an art show I had stumbled upon; and it’s a body of work that continues to inform me, or check me, even to this day.

Ode to Broken Things – A show produced and curated by Dan Leibel of Giant Ledge Productions set at 17 Frost Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, featuring two artists with an unforgettable synergy.

Ode to Broken Things – A show produced and curated by Dan Leibel of Giant Ledge Productions set at 17 Frost Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, featuring two artists with an unforgettable synergy. On the left side of the gallery hung the paintings and drawings by up-and-coming, contemporary painter James Fisher-Smith. On the right side hung the work by a man of superb artistic pedigree, Richard Giglio, may he rest in peace. Giglio died in 2015, survived by his partner of twelve years, Ray Black, who played an important role in the show.

From left to right: Ray Black, Dan Leibel, and James Fisher-Smith

Leibel had just launched Giant Ledge with the intention of bringing sincere, provocative artwork to a community who found it inspiring. This vision led him to reach out to Fisher-Smith and Black to organize the second of a four-show summer run. I attended the show in the afternoon on the second to last day. I hadn’t expected something so personal, yet so shocking as I found when first arrived. The large, open garage door gave assistance to this, as it allowed the pale, midsummer light to filter in while raw canvas bellowed in the breeze. The day had seen many guests come and go, but I nonetheless found Leibel, Black, and Fisher-Smith in generous spirits. The title of the show, Ode to Broken Things, references the centerpiece of Giglio’s side of the show – an English translation of a Pablo Neruda poem of the same name. The painting is commanding in size; blue, unevenly spaced freehand juts over a thin white gesso painted and dripped over rough swatches of green, violet, and yellow. The poem itself is melancholy, rolling over life and loss, exemplified by its third stanza:

Life goes on grinding up

Glass, wearing out clothes

Making fragments

Breaking down

Forms

And what lasts through time

Is like an island on a ship on the sea,

Perishable

Surrounded by dangerous fragility

By merciless waters and threats. Things get broken, at home

This piece has a popular history, having been profiled in the New York Times in 2010. But it also served as a muse for the show. Black described its unrolling:

“We just stood there, reading it, and connecting with it in a way I had never connected with it before. started talking about James and how he creates art and repurposes things and dissolves paintings only to bring them back to life. Then we started talking about how all of us, as human beings, are after all broken things. We started with that piece and built the show around it from both sides. James was so wonderfully magnanimous that he said, ‘You know, let’s call the show Broken Things. You know, Richard’s piece? Let’s call it that.’”

“We just stood there, reading it, and connecting with it in a way I had never connected with it before. started talking about James and how he creates art and repurposes things and dissolves paintings only to bring them back to life. Then we started talking about how all of us, as human beings, are after all broken things. We started with that piece and built the show around it from both sides. James was so wonderfully magnanimous that he said, ‘You know, let’s call the show Broken Things. You know, Richard’s piece? Let’s call it that.’”

Giglio’s side of the show, Ode to Broken Things is found on the upper left

This powerful combination may have also felt serendipitous to them. Prior to the exhibition, Fisher-Smith had never heard of Giglio’s work. He explained to me his impression of Giglio’s paintings:

“While they don’t represent anything we have seen before our eyes, in a representational sense, looking at Richard’s work, I do see a man grappling with his actions and his feelings. He’s tearing paper and ripping canvas, painting on something, ripping it in half and putting it back on the canvas. I think of all this deliberation, and second guessing, isn’t any evidence of him not knowing what he was doing, he knew exactly what he was doing. And he liberated himself to make work from this free, playful modality, which is something I aspire to do as well.”

Entrance to the gallery

After a terrific opening reception and selling some amount of work, the success of the show has been due more to fate than chance. Leibel has admired Giglio’s work since his youth, and had become acquainted with Fisher-Smith through New York City’s underground art scene. Bringing them together fit perfectly with the theme of the show, as we’ve all been adapting to a broken world suffering from climate change, a global pandemic, and political strife. With this in mind, Leibel took the opportunity to connect two artists from different aspects of his life to form a show that responds to our global situation just as these artists respond to situations in their own lives.

“The point of the production company, which spawned during the pandemic, is to offer people a place to heal through art and music in a very accessible space,” Leibel explained, “one where you can link up and coming artists with established individuals and their networks. It’s intentionally malleable. We want to produce shows that are high quality, and I couldn’t think of a better show to install in our first run. It fits the time. People have a lot of pent-up energy, and things are finally starting to change.”

Fisher-Smith’s side of the show

It was evident that a strong ebb and flow existed between Fisher-Smith’s vibrant, organic composition on the left, and Giglio’s dripping, electric aesthetic on the right. The centerpiece of the show was unmistakable, but the audience is inexplicably drawn to every corner of the room.

It was evident that a strong ebb and flow existed between Fisher-Smith’s vibrant, organic composition on the left, and Giglio’s dripping, electric aesthetic on the right. The centerpiece of the show was unmistakable, but the audience is inexplicably drawn to every corner of the room. The energy that existed between Fisher-Smith and Giglio wasn’t solely imagined by me. Everyone there, Leibel, Black, and Fisher-Smith felt it as well. It was mysterious, similar to déjà vu. There was this chaos without animosity, a kinetic Yin-Yang, something purely expressive about both bodies of work that complimented each other but retained distinction. Fisher-Smith elaborated on his methods; using solvents to dissolve an ink drawing, or taking a razor blade to carve into the surface of 30 layers of diluted acrylic, graphite, wax and pastel on canvas, and how he thinks they work with Giglio’s themes:

“To respond to an Ode to Broken Things, I think lot of my works are about reconstituting broken things into a new whole, or breaking things down so they can be reconstituted. All these different practices come from a place of transmuting suffering into something affirmative and constructive. I felt like an archeologist discovering a lost civilization, but that civilization was myself during that time. So, I had this fascination with discovering myself through this process of rebirth or renewal. This idea of creating my own world, and no world is perfect. To start with an imperfect world, or a surface that’s covered in lacerations, feels more real, like a better starting point to build something new.”

Work by Fisher-Smith, clockwise from top to bottom: Chase, 2020, wax, chalk, graphite and acrylic on canvas, 77×70”; Portrait of Ty Stephano, 2018, spray paint on cardboard, 16×11”; Specter, 2018, ink on paper, 24×19”; Neck Above Water, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 12×9”; Viscera, 2018, ink on paper and collage, 11×12.5”; Prayer Flag, 2019, ink on paper, collage, and old paintbrush, 9.5×11.5”; Humus, 2018, ink on paper, 24×19”

A combination of painting and collage, Giglio’s work exhibits a balance between harmony and discord. One cannot exist without the other, holding the audience in suspense as they trace the action from one bold, colorful or solid black form as it rockets into another. A mastery in application is found to create a great unity, a soothing, enchanting spectacle that doesn’t inspire fear or anxiety but rather a sort of impetus. In a strong comparison, Fisher-Smith’s work is equally as enchanting, but rather than dripping lines or sharp edges, his work is much more fluid, not only exemplified by his shapes but also by his intense color pallet that he uses to show a specific depth in each piece. His line work appears to be static in the void, but upon closer inspection they seem to be working in unison.

“I’m exhibiting a series of paintings and drawings made from 2018 to March 2020, begun pretty much right off the plane at Con Artist’s Collective at 119 Ludlow Street. I made these large works on canvas over the course of a month. I built them up layer by layer, starting with diffused lines of graphite, building them up and then carving into them to reveal that history. And I think that while the show covers two years, each one of those canvases can cover a month of my life,” Fisher-Smith recounted the genesis exactly, “A lot of work in this show came from this era of circling around this long basement table, working on these large ink drawings, making these totemic forums inspired by things I had seen in pacific northwestern woodcarving, and also the graffiti that had surrounded me since my youth, which started in the Lower East Side. For me, these things were a synthesis of these different modes of understanding human nature and mother nature.”

Work by Fisher-Smith, clockwise from top to bottom: Populous, 2019, graphite and acrylic on canvas and polypropylene, 89×71”; Fracas, 2018, collage and ink on paper, 24×18”; Bramble, 2018, ink on paper, 24×18”; Boy, 2018, ink on paper, 18×24”

The audience was invited to explore the ethos that lay within, from the blotches of color that are pasted over the scribbling of poets past and the erratic, geometric structures on Giglio’s side to the luminous petals and the layers upon layers of emanating auras on Fisher-Smith’s.

The audience was invited to explore the ethos that lay within, from the blotches of color that are pasted over the scribbling of poets past and the erratic, geometric structures on Giglio’s side to the luminous petals and the layers upon layers of emanating auras on Fisher-Smith’s. Over time, we were able to see the mechanics beneath it all, the subjects’ beautiful imperfections rising to the surface, holding to the show’s theme. There was a freedom these artists allowed themselves; there was movement and action, not as violence, but like a dance. There was no limit to this body of work, a reassuring yet unpredictable manifestation of life that gave it charisma and allowed the artists to build, dissect, and ornament their subjects without restriction, creating an exhilarating effect.

“There’s three different ways Richard and I intersect,” Fisher-Smith told me, divulging his discoveries, “One way is our use of raw canvas. I think another one of those ways is his figuration in the way he does couture. That practice is not unlike my practice of drawing comedians in the Lower East Side, where I would go to St. Mark’s theater and draw thousands of portraits from 12am to 4am every Tuesday. My figurative work is very much an expression of the world around me. I would go out and attempt to document the people and encapsulate something of who they are. And being in this world, where it would be much easier to take a photograph, both of us sat down to make this concerted effort to capture this fleeting moment. Our work is very similar in that Richard went out in the world to draw people and he’s expressing their movements.”

Guest observing Giglio’s work

Having the privilege of being guided through the gallery by the three of them was like being guided through the minds and lives of both artists. Each work had a story, a point to it, an emotion attached; both Black and Fisher-Smith were incredibly open about everything. This was necessary when describing the show, as the theme had much to do with honest exposure, the scrapes and scars on the psyche. The originality of the work affirmed that a life lived is one of great happiness and great sorrow. Things may come into disarray and go on incomplete, but we are not without our complete moments, and it has been the duty of these two artists to record what they’ve witnessed. Not just mere representation, but how it made them feel, and what it meant to be a part of that place and time.

“I often wonder because Richard died in 2015, what kind of art would he have made in response to the pandemic? What would he have to say about the Trump years? These questions will go unanswered. That’s one of the reasons I included the piece he made the afternoon Kennedy was assassinated. Sometimes, the most important things we create are of those things that we have an emotional and intellectual connection to,” Black stated, speaking on the impulse of the artist, “and on that day, November 6th, 1963, a twenty-year-old artist went to his studio in Manhattan and drew this because he was feeling a certain way. James has two pieces in this show that he made at the start of the pandemic. So, it’s really interesting to have two pieces that reflect what we’ve all come out of.”

They’ve observed lives lived from the 1960’s to the 2010’s, from California to Key West to Paris to Israel, drawing and painting along the way to finally arrive together at a gallery together in New York City.

The show spans decades, and it’s just as much about the journey of the artists as it is about their destination. A keen awareness of their environments and their current events was crucial to the evolution of both artists, and the audience is able to see this in their work. They’ve observed lives lived from the 1960’s to the 2010’s, from California to Key West to Paris to Israel, drawing and painting along the way to finally arrive together at a gallery together in New York City. It was an astounding body of work, full of life and rhythm; the only disjointed, or broken thing about it was the time in which the artists worked: Giglio had passed away in 2015, having accomplished six decades at the forefront of the art world, while Fisher-Smith, just 26 years old, has just begun his jaunt of an artist’s career.

Side by side of Fisher-Smith and Giglio

“Richard graduated from the Pratt institute in ’56, and this is the first time that I’m aware of that Richard’s art is being shown in Brooklyn. It’s really cool that it’s with these young guys from Brooklyn, who have been so wonderful to collaborate with. He would have been so thrilled that people in their 20’s in Williamsburg enjoyed looking at his art, and even bought some of it. I think it’s really great that this is happening, and it’s an honor for me,” Black told me.

Giglio was born in 1934 and grew up in New Rochelle, New York. He attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, after which he immediately began his career doing commercial artwork. “Glamour Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar would fly him to Paris and Milan to sketch the runway shows. Even though they had photographers, they sent artists to sketch the couture gowns,” Black told me, “That’s how he started doing fashion illustration. Then he started doing window display work in the 50’s. It was the first time any Avant Guard window display work was being done, where it was actually art. In the 90’s, everyone always looked forward to Barney’s window displays because they were political and edgy, and Richard was doing that at Bergdorf Goodman in 1961.”

Richard Giglio

Giglio’s start in commercial artwork helped him hone his understanding of motion and composition. His development in the work he did outside of that, what one would call conceptual or fine art, was sped up as a result. The two went hand in hand for Giglio, who was constantly creating and networking, staying in tune with the world around him and creating his art as a response to it. After enough success, he had befriended the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Halston, and later Jean-Michel Basquiat, selling art regularly enough to live comfortably in both New York City and Key West, Florida. The two polarizing environments provided him with enough adventure to stay inspired and at the cutting edge; he was an artist with a true lust for life, interpreting it through his art in brutally honest detail. The imperfections he found in life became beautiful, critical details in his work.

“Richard was not very precious about his art. He would put a canvas that was regularly wrapped up on the wall, and the edges would stay there for its lifetime. He would glue things on with gesso and he would staple things on and let them dry overnight. There would be staple holes in it, and that would be part of it,” describing Giglio’s work, Black was as enthusiastic as if he had just discovered it.

“I think we both have a mutual appreciation for play,” Fisher-Smith went into detail behind the process of creation, “There’s a lot of whimsy, a lot of excitement, and being in the moment, and making works that have a tonality to them, a distinct emotion to them.”

“I think we both have a mutual appreciation for play,” Fisher-Smith went into detail behind the process of creation, “There’s a lot of whimsy, a lot of excitement, and being in the moment, and making works that have a tonality to them, a distinct emotion to them.”

Black speaks with guests on Giglio’s work

Fisher-Smith grew up in Nevada City, California, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. His father was a park ranger and wildland forest firefighter, now a best-selling author, and his mother is an occupational therapist. His paternal grandmother, was also an artist; he describes his work as a way of connecting with her, and carrying on a family tradition. He was also a Steiner student, an education focused on developing a child’s growth through various artforms, such as visual art, dance, and music. It’s from this background of arts and sciences that James took his initial inspiration to become an artist.

“Because of my parents being in these professional fields, I wanted to study science, following my father’s footsteps and becoming an environmental biologist. So, I went to Reed College in Portland, Oregon for two years and won a fellowship for independent research. But throughout that whole fellowship I was doing these ink drawings and painting and eventually, I dropped out and spent a year working on food trucks in California, drawing and painting that whole time.”

Art has been a thread stitching through Fisher-Smith’s life that he’s always followed, and a big part of creating has been the discoveries it’s allowed him to make. Fisher-Smith is an avid traveler, much as Giglio was in his heyday. Fisher-Smith travelled around the U.S., then on 2017 embarked on a trip through the Middle East and Europe before finally settling in New York City. It dawned on him through his travels that art was the real motivator in his life; so, he arrived in New York with just a one month sublet waiting for him. His goal was to create, exhibit, and sell something good, but starting in New York City has been its own adventure.

“After getting my studio in 2019, I started to go more inward, expressing myself on these large canvases covered in these diffused lines building up to the surface. I found myself and also something of my grandmother in those paintings. I think going out into the world, moving to New York City, there was this impulse to document human nature because I grew up in quite a rural area, and I almost lost myself in this sea of people, in these thousands of portraits, and getting a studio and working on these large canvases was a statement about getting back to myself through this rigorous process of drawing and carving through these canvases. The same with Richard, when he’s in his studio, his practice is much more of an abstract philosophy. This is the other way in which our work intersects.”

Fisher-Smith standing next to his work

After exploring Giglio’s side of the gallery, Fisher-Smith approached speaking on his own work with a humble, succinct honesty. Maintaining the truth to his essence was important to Fisher-Smith. His disfigured portraits, his manic abstracts, his utterly beautiful sense of balance and trajectory gave the impression of an artist with a courageous sensitivity towards the world. Fisher-Smith’s life, right up to the present moment, lay bare on the walls. He continued:

“I reflect on my time in New York as an odyssey, or a wormhole that pulls you into its orbit. In 2019, I ended up at the 50th birthday of Al Diaz, the famed graffiti writer of the SAMO duo. I think that’s the perfect expression for what New York has been for me, because growing up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, looking at the work of street artists in New York City, I never imagined that one day I would have a common interest with them, or a common point of contact, so to speak.”

Black had spoken passionately when describing Giglio; now a fabled enigma to everyone present except for him, his memory of Giglio directed us to properly understand the man and the artist. With the length of Giglio’s career, his practice was subject to immense changes and struggle, but he never lost what it meant to create. He made art because he loved doing it, and because he wanted to give something to people that they could cherish. He made art to respond to the broken things in life and the world, repurposing what was left of them into something new and complete again.

Memorial to Giglio

“His view of making art was that he wanted to make things people found beautiful or interesting that they would hang on their wall. He was always so touched, that somebody would choose to give him money for something that he created and put it on their wall and live with it every day,” Black told me, “That was such an amazing, intimate thing that happened, that they would be living with something he made on their wall through the good and bad in their lives. He did make art for himself, but if there wasn’t somebody looking at it, then the transaction of giving it to the world wasn’t complete yet.”

Giglio’s artistic purpose is the purpose of art all together; to filter the world through a certain lens, to make eternal the impressions made on an artist. No one is without passion, ideas, or traumas, and these are the things art is meant to express; and with any luck, they will resonate with the public.

Giglio’s artistic purpose is the purpose of art all together; to filter the world through a certain lens, to make eternal the impressions made on an artist. No one is without passion, ideas, or traumas, and these are the things art is meant to express; and with any luck, they will resonate with the public.

“He was an intense person, he was a moody person, he was an artist,” Black recalled, reminiscing over Giglio, “he was also a joyful person who loved to laugh and had a great sense of style. His view on life was that he had to make something, and he had to get it to somebody. He was a person of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, but most of the work here is from the last twenty years of his life.”

Guests in front of Fisher-Smith’s work

Time and experience have played a key role on both sides of the studio. Fisher-Smith has had much time to observe Giglio’s work. He has been able to see the effort put in, the natural evolution that occurs in the body of work from the beginning of an artist’s career, much like where he is now, to the end, where experience plays a different role. The audience can see the development of both artists, and from this are able to see a conversation between fragments of time. This was a huge influence on the theme of the show, and it influences Fisher-Smith’s contemplations as well. He went on:

“New York City is a hotbed for collaboration with artists both living and dead. There’s so much history, there’s so many people who have come to New York for the same reasons. You’re living in their footsteps, you’re working in the same way as them, and you wouldn’t even know, until you see an artist just like you on the other side of the studio. I’m extremely grateful to be showing with an artist who has had such a colorful career over the decades, and to see the future before my eyes. I’m very happy.”

The show itself stands for a fragment in time, memories of a world different than it is now. But, although things have changed, they are intrinsically linked together by the touch of artists who have taken these memories and concentrated them into something eternal. The audience is able to see the beauty of the world hiding behind the broken shards of perception, and the show ultimately acknowledged this thing that we all have in common, which is the same thing that makes us individuals; the emotional response we have to the ever-perplexing events of the world around us. These works were keen observations that reminded me that it’s worth it to keep pushing, and we all need to be reminded of that, especially when we seem to be facing the darkest of times.

Tyler Bruett is a writer and musician from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who is now based in New York City. Fascinated with contemporary culture, he finds pride working with emerging artists, street artists, and musicians alike. He is passionate about using his experience to bridge the gap between artists and the city they inhabit.

    @tylerbruettgpg

   tylerrossbruett@hotmail.com